Disaster leads to chance for giant park in Whatcom County

One of the things washed away in a 1983 flood was the rationale for maintaining state ownership of 8,400 acres at Lake Whatcom. But now some question whether the county can afford to take back the land.
Crosscut archive image.

Circles indicate the location of the new 8400-acre Whatcom County Park. The boundaries cover much of Stewart and Lookout Mountains in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

One of the things washed away in a 1983 flood was the rationale for maintaining state ownership of 8,400 acres at Lake Whatcom. But now some question whether the county can afford to take back the land.

Barbara Snow was alone in her home by the lake on that January morning. She awoke at 5 o'clock to a terrifying scraping and hammering at the sides of her house. She opened the door to her carport to see what was going on. Tons of muddy, ice-cold water rushed into the house. In moments the water was chest high and she was struggling in the darkness to get out.

"I thought I was dying," Snow recalled last month. "I started to feel warm and at peace with everything. I began to see happy scenes from when I was a little girl.

"I thought to myself, I've always been late for everything, am I going to be on time for my death? For some reason this struck me as very funny, and I came to my senses."

Snow had been told in avalanche-survival courses to "swim with it, not against it." Swimming with the debris-filled torrent of Smith Creek, she managed to force herself onto the porch next door, to pound the door and scream. She and her neighbors, Joan and Loren Webb, huddled in the remains of the Webbs' wrecked house for three hours before being rescued, while the remains of Snow's house washed into Lake Whatcom.

It was Jan. 11, 1983. The landslide that destroyed homes along the shore of Lake Whatcom and sent some 80 acres of mud, logs and timber slash into the lake, was a sadly familiar story. Bad logging on private and state-owned land, poorly built logging roads and a record rainstorm created debris flows on Stewart Mountain, above the lake. Logs and slash flowed down Smith Creek to pile up behind a county bridge. The result, as documented by professional photographer Tore Ofteness of Bellingham, was appalling. The debris dam burst and sent water and logs roaring through the neighborhood.

The havoc energized the community to protect Lake Whatcom and the surrounding hillsides. The citizen-based groups Conservation Northwest and Whatcom Land Trust organized public pressure to have the land set aside in a timber and wildlife preserve.

Twenty-six years after the Smith Creek disaster, it's happening. Under a land transfer agreement between the county and the state Department of Natural Resources, the land becomes what may be the state's largest county park: 8,400 acres of timbered hills, within easy bicycle distance of Bellingham.

If you're running a county that has a hole the size of a few million dollars in its budget, it could seem like a foolish time to take on a huge new park. But County Executive Pete Kremen and most Whatcom County Council members see it as a way of preventing landslides and protecting Lake Whatcom — the drinking water source for some 90,000 people in and around Bellingham. The council voted in late November to find the $291,000 required to pay for the handoff of the 8,400 acres from DNR to Whatcom County. The payment — it works out to about $36 an acre — covers DNR's cost of adjusting boundaries and having the timber appraised so that it knows what it's giving away.

How big is 8,400 acres? You could drop all of Seattle's city parks in there and have 2,000 acres around the edges. You could call it 36 Seattle Arboretums. Or think of it as 16 Discovery Parks.

The land transfer calls up some Depression-era history. This was privately owned land — in 40-acre to 620-acre chunks — that was logged, mistreated, and disdained by its owners in the 1930s, then taken by Whatcom County for nonpayment of taxes. Counties all over the state were doing the same in those years. But counties were not in the timber business and could see no return in keeping the land, so the Washington Legislature let the DNR take over these lands and manage them for the counties, keep them in timber, sell the logs, and use the revenue to support such local necessities as schools and fire districts.

Now, some 75 years after they were logged, mature second-growth Douglas Fir, Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar cover the hills above Lake Whatcom. Remnants of true, untouched old growth cling to some of the steeper hillsides. Some remarkable species live there, including the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird that feeds at the seashore and races miles inland to nest in old-growth trees.

If DNR were to hold onto the land, it would have to sell the timber. That's what we pay the department for. But those in charge at DNR and elsewhere know how risky that is. The hillsides are so steep, the soils so touchy that when laid bare they head downhill in a rainstorm. Ask Barbara Snow. Or check out some vivid Seattle Times reporting on the catastrophic Lewis County landslide of 2007. Stopping the flow of soil requires a forest canopy to break up the hammering winter rains. And logging roads are the most common point of departure for hillsides headed south.

Under the transfer agreement, the county can't log any of the 8,400 acres, except as required for parking lots, playgrounds, and trails. The land has to be managed as a public park. Bill Wallace, DNR's Northwest Region supervisor, says the agreement contains no well-defined standards for deciding what's a park and what isn't but, "It has to pass the silly grin test." It will be a park for low-impact uses, primarily hiking and bicycling, with some regulated camping.

So, it looks like a straight-ahead deal, the county taking back the land it gave away to keep it from being logged? Not quite. It'll take at least a couple of years for DNR to shift some property boundaries so the irregular chunks of land the county got rid of all those years ago will be consolidated into a manageable 8,400 acres.

Meanwhile, a forest industry lawsuit is being contemplated, in an effort to block the transfer. A judge ruled the suit premature a few months ago, but the plaintiffs are expected to try again. One of the plaintiffs is Tom Westergreen, log manager for Great Western Lumber Company of Everson, the last sawmill in Whatcom County that buys logs and sells lumber. Great Western had bid for some of the timber that now seems likely to become part of the park.

"It's nothing but a land grab," Westergreen told Crosscut. "The county's trying to take over more and more land. They show great concern for protecting farmland, but they keep reducing the timber base. It's going to cost jobs. It takes a lot of timber base to keep a sawmill going."

As for the landslide danger from logging roads, Westergreen says that threat is mostly history. "There won't be any roads built on unstable areas, that just isn't done anymore. These timber sales are checked out carefully and if there's unstable soils, that sale doesn't happen."

A different kind of court battle was averted when Whatcom County and the DNR negotiated an out-of-court settlement with the Mt. Baker School District, which operates eight public schools in rural areas east of Bellingham. The district will be compensated for some of the roughly $1 million in timber trust funds it will lose because of timber sales that won't happen.

In the past few months there's been some buildup of political opposition within Whatcom County to the new park. During the recent election campaign, Councilmember-elect Kathy Kershner attacked her opponent, Dan McShane, for advocating the land transfer during an earlier term on the council. (Kershner beat McShane by 312 votes out of 54,600 cast). Once she takes office in January, she could lead a new conservative coalition to undo it. Kershner points to a predicted shortfall in the county's budget for next year, and questions the timing of the land transfer.

"My concern is that we won't have the money to manage it," Kershner told Crosscut. "We're told we'll have to hire at least one more full-time ranger and two part-time employees assigned to the new park. We'll need to build and maintain trails and parking lots." On the other hand, Kershner said, "We get 8,400 acres of park land at a cheap price. If we can get past the financial hurdles, we'll be OK."

Much better than OK, in the view of County Administrator Dewey Desler, who oversees Whatcom County's budget process. "Just think what we're getting," Desler says. "To begin with, we're required to protect the lake and this is part of that protection. But think of the legacy, the opportunity to leave this jewel of a landscape to the future of Bellingham.

"Imagine this city 50 years from now," Desler muses. "What's it gonna be, 200,000 people? And they'll have this 8,400-acre park, right at the city's edge. You can hear someone 50 years from now saying, 'My heavens, look what those people did for us. Just look at what they did.'"


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bob Simmons

Bob Simmons is a longtime KING-TV reporter who has been writing news for print and television for 65 years.